Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On the Dexter Fowler Trade

Yesterday, the Astros finalised their trade of Fowler to the Cubs - a deal that has apparently been percolating for the last six weeks or so.  I had an article planned (and which I will still write) about why the trade market for Castro and Fowler has been a little slow this winter.  Essentially, teams seem happy to have a glove-first guy at C and CF, and the teams that do have a weakness in that area are not great match-ups for the Astros in trade talks for various reasons.  Fowler finally got traded, and the published analysis seem to see the trade as fair, logical and good for both teams (although this pundit likes it for the Cubbies).

Looking at this trade purely from the Astros' perspective - and ignoring any judgment about who "won" the trade - it is evident that this trade was one that needed to be completed.  The loss of what Fowler brings to the table is significant, as he is a solid player who likely would have played well enough for a qualifying offer at the end of the year.  But subtracting him for an infielder who can be a league-average bat at the left side of the infield is also an idea of considerable merit.

Lets start by looking at what Fowler is.  He is a solid source of on-base percentage, and a great baserunner (but not necessarily a base stealer).  OBP is vital for the Astros, who seem to be hell-bent on assembling a lineup of high-strikeout power-hitters.  OBP turns solo homers into crooked-number innings.  OBP ratchets up the pressure on the pitchers, who must deliver strikes when players are on-base, perhaps making the chances of a fat, hittable pitch more likely.

Fowler, and his career .366 on-base percentage, was an ideal switch- and leadoff-hitter on the Astros.  With the Astros, he struck out at an average-to-slightly-superior clip (21.4%), walked a lot (13.1%) and stole a few bases (11, versus 4 caught-stealings).  As mentioned above, most of his measured base-running value is in taking the extra-base and going first-to-third, rather than base-thievery, so he should be seen as an intelligent baserunner, rather than an out-and-out burner like Jose Altuve.

Fowler plays a moderate CF.  His defensive numbers - depending on whether you choose to believe them or not - peg him as a fairly awful CF compared with other major-leaguers, which is a combination of a poor range and weak throwing arm.  I also recall that he botched a number of plays late in the season last year, including a dropped fly-ball, a couple of outfield bobbles, and a slow throw into second that allowed the opponent to take an extra-base, which are more examples of sloppy play rather than defensive weakness.  The CF fielding numbers measure his poor range and noodle-arm, rather than overt lapses of concentration - but it could be true to say that the lapses of concentration and the fielding metrics were both difficulties.

None of this is a problem for many ML teams.  Fowler is a perfectly passable CF plug-in, especially on a one-year contract.  However on the Astros, Fowler would probably be the fourth best defensive option as a CF, and profiles better as a LF on the Astros.  Presley, Springer and Marisnick are all better defensive options than Fowler, and perhaps Grossman represents one as well.

Fowler's bat is a big-plus as a CF, but as a corner outfielder, that would not necessarily be the case.  His OBP is great at any position, but most teams would likely want more power out of a corner outfielder.  Fowler should not be keen to make the shift a corner position with one year to go before free agency, either, as it most likely diminishes his value considerably.  So the Astros may have been keen for a defensive upgrade in CF, but would likely have faced some resistance from Fowler had he been asked to move to the corners.

Additionally, MMP has a giant CF to patrol, and a comparatively small LF - which is important for half of the game the Astros will play.  Putting Fowler in left would not necessarily be a good use of what defensive virtues he does have.  And he doesn't have the arm for right, so flipping the defensive positions of Fowler and Springer was never going to fly, either.

What this does - in terms of the Astros outfield situation - is very interesting.  Prior to the Rasmus signing - which has just been made official - it likely raised the possibility of a platoon between Marisnick and Presley or Marisnick and Grossman.  That platoon could exist either in CF or RF, with Springer manning the other position.  One assumes that Gattis will man LF, but this is also subject to confirmation, and there appears to be a non-zero possibility that Carter will be traded and Gattis never sets foot in the outfield.  Gattis remains listed on the 40-man as a catcher, but this means precisely nothing at the moment.  And if Gattis is considered an outfielder then I would think that the Astros will want to carry four others on the active roster for reasons of allowing both rest and defensive substitutions.

The complexity of all of this makes my head spin, and much depends on any personnel moves in the next few weeks.  But what the Astros have created is the possibility of a very flexible outfield alignment, with legitimate ML bats being able to be plugged in at one of a number of positions.  Which acts as a nice segway to the main spoils of the trade, infielder Luis Valbuena, who also happens to have a good bat (or at least did in 2014), and offers considerable positional flexibility.

Valbuena seems like an... uh, expressive ballplayer, whose various (sometimes hypotheticalbat-flipping antics (and his awesome own appeal to the third base umpire) have gained him a bit of a following in Chicago.  Much like Fowler, he has considerable appeal that falls short of all-round awesomeness, and he is in an organisation which has a lot of league-minimum depth at his position(s).  His strong points include a degree of positional flexibility, batting left-handed, patience (walk rate at least 11.9% since 2012) and some recent power (.435 slugging in 2014) - albeit at the expense of contact (20.7% strikeout percentage in 2014 - the highest of his career).  This makes him ideal to plug in at third base on the 2015 Astros, potentially as part of a platoon with Dominguez.  His drawbacks include a short track record of success, middling (read: probably below average) defence and a lack of speed.  And again, as with Gattis, the Astros are gambling on recent track-record being more indicative of future performance in a player in their late-20's, and this seems like a good guy to take a gamble on.

The other part of the trade - Dan Straily - is an interesting pitcher - a soft-tosser who has previously had some success in the AL West based on solid strikeout rates.  However, he can be somewhat homer-prone and gives up a lot of walks, which has led to some rough periods throughout his career.  He had a solid but short 2012 in the Majors - when he threw 39.1 innings - and a good 2013 - when he threw 152.1 innings of league-average ball, both for a contending Oakland team.     Last year represented a large slide backwards in terms of results (6.75 ERA, 5.32 FIP in 52 major-league innings) despite no real change in peripherals.  Straily has suggested that he had some mechanical issues last year, which potentially bodes well for a bit of Brett Strom magic.  But at this time he is probably best thought of as a pitching project who lives on a knife-edge even when throwing well, and has no real margin for error.  Brad Peacock, anyone?

The Rasmus signing perhaps adds a little to the Front Office's thinking behind the Fowler trade, but that is a subject for another article.  For now, I like this trade, mostly because Fowler represented a poor defensive CF option or a powerless corner option for the Astros, and the Astros had a number of other superior defensive options to patrol CF in the 81 games at MMP.  The loss of the OBP may be significant, but the Astros are now close to fielding a team where every player in the regular batting lineup (aside from the current AL batting champ) could hit 20 homers.  Which is what they seem to be aiming for, and which is another reason why Fowler perhaps didn't fit.